The 2023 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Narges Mohammadi, an imprisoned Iranian scientist, journalist and human rights activist, for her principled and persistent campaign against the increasingly repressive regime in Iran. The award also acknowledged the broader Iranian women’s movement, which last year spearheaded the first counterrevolution in history triggered, led and sustained by females, many in their teens. “This year’s Peace Prize also recognizes the hundreds of thousands of people who, in the preceding year, have demonstrated against Iran’s theocratic regime’s policies of discrimination and oppression targeting women,” the Nobel Committee said.
‘Women, Life, Freedom’
During the last three months of 2023, more than 500 Iranians were killed and some 20,000 arrested after the death in detention of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for violating the strict dress code by showing too much hair under her hijab. “The motto adopted by the demonstrators — ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ — suitably expresses the dedication and work of Narges Mohammadi,” the Nobel Committee added.
The selection reflects the Nobel Committee’s growing recognition of women who lead political and social opposition movements worldwide. Only three women won the Nobel Peace Prize during its first 75 years. Overall, the Nobel Committee has only awarded 19 of the 111 peace prizes to women since 1901, while 92 went to men. With Mohammadi, women have now won or shared nine of the Nobel Peace Prizes awarded since 2000. The 2023 award is the second to an Iranian human rights activist. Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer who founded the Defenders of Human Rights Center, won in 2003; she has lived in exile in London since 2009.
In a statement, President Joe Biden joined many around the world in “celebrating” Mohammadi’s “unshakable courage” in challenging the regime’s ruthless abuses and her commitment to building a different future for all Iranians. “She has endured repeated arrests, persecution, and torture at the hands of the Iranian regime, yet Ms. Mohammadi’s advocacy and determination has only grown stronger,” he said. “This award is a recognition that, even as she is currently and unjustly held in Evin prison, the world still hears the clarion voice of Narges Mohammadi calling for freedom and equality.” He called on the Iranian government in Iran to immediately release her and other women’s rights activists.
Mohammadi is a gutsy scientist, journalist and human rights campaigner. She studied applied physics at the University of Qazvin, then worked as an engineer even as she wrote and campaigned on human rights issues. She was prolific in reformist publications, some of which were subsequently banned by the government. She was first imprisoned for a year in the late 1990s for criticizing the government. In 2003, she joined the Defenders of Human Rights Center founded by Ebadi and rose to become its vice-president. In 2011, she was charged with “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and belonging to the Ebadi organization. She has faced several subsequent charges for “collusion” and propaganda against the state, in turn piling up more years in prison and more lashes. “Altogether, the regime in Iran has arrested her 13 times, convicted her five times, and sentenced her to a total of 31 years in prison and 154 lashes,” the Nobel Committee noted.
'Life is Struggle’
Mohammadi’s imprisonment has gutted her personal life and professional goals. In 1999, she married fellow activist Taghi Rahmani, who has spent almost a third of his life in prison for activism — first against the shah and later against the Islamic government. He was only 15 when he was first arrested, he told me when I interviewed him at USIP in May 2023.
Mohammadi and Rahmani met when she joined a secret class he was teaching above a bookstore, years after he had first been detained. “I told her that her mother, when I had gone to ask for Narges' hand, I said want to marry your daughter,” Rahmani recalled. “She said, ‘I will not give you my daughter. You're a political activist. You're going to make my daughter's life miserable.’” They married anyway. Mohammadi increasingly came under pressure for her writing on issues of personal freedoms and women’s rights.
After her first arrest, Rahmani recalled, “I told Narges to exercise and not to think too much in solitary.” As government harassment increased on both of them, he wanted to take the family, including their young twins, into exile in France. She refused to abandon Iran. “Narges said I'm an activist, and an activist can't be active outside the country, I will stay in Iran,” he told me. “I went back to my mother-in-law and said, ‘Now it's your daughter who's not coming with me. What must I do?’” He added, “She's much more dangerous than I am now.”
Her book, “White Torture: Interviews with Iranian Women Prisoners,” was released to critical acclaim in 2022. In scorching detail, it personalizes the physical and psychological trauma of being a prisoner of conscience. “I am writing this preface in the final hours of my home leave. Very soon I will be forced to return to my prison,” she wrote. “This time I was found guilty because of the book you are holding in your hands – White Torture.”
Mohammadi has not wavered. In a statement released through her family after the Nobel announcement, she said, “Standing alongside the brave mothers of Iran, I will continue to fight against the relentless discrimination, tyranny and gender-based oppression by the oppressive religious government until the liberation of women.” She has not seen her son and daughter, who are now 16, for eight years.
I asked Rahmani if hardships, suffering and family separation were worth it. “Yes, why not? It's worth it,” he said. “Life is struggle, the struggle for freedom. She is not unhappy at all. And I'm not unhappy about it. Narges said she would never recognize any court or participate in any trial, because you have no justice. Now she doesn't even care what the rulings are or what the sentences are.”
The award coincided with news of yet another assault on a young Iranian over dress code violations while she was riding the Tehran subway on October 5. Biden noted the “horrifying reports” about Iran’s so-called morality police assaulting 16-year-old Armita Geravand for not wearing a headscarf. “The people of Iran refuse to be silenced or intimidated as they fight for a free and democratic future for their nation, and their peaceful movement,” he said. “The United States will continue working to support Iranians’ ability to advocate for their own future, for freedom of expression, for gender equality, and to end gender-based violence against women and girls everywhere.” He noted U.S. diplomatic initiatives at the United Nations to hold Iran accountable for human rights abuses and deployment of anti-censorship tools “to make it easier for tens of millions of Iranians to access the internet.”
Meanwhile, Mohammadi has remained active behind bars too. On the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death in September 2023, she organized a protest by women serving with her in Evin Prison. They burned their scarves, required even in the women’s section of a prison.